2011-08-03

Should I write using a large or small vocabulary? I think that's a false dichotomy.

My sister is a writer. My brother-in-law is considering being a writer. I'd like to be a writer. So we have recently started having some good discussions about becoming good writers—of fiction, in particular. Our latest discussion has been revolving around the question, should we use unusual words or common words? Big words or small words? Another way to put the question is, should my characters have a large or a small vocabulary?

A related page

The thing with writing fiction (and perhaps anything else) is, there are two opposing forces you have to deal with: (1) the small vocabulary force and (2) the large vocabulary force.

The tendency to use a small vocabulary comes from the way each of us has his or her own set of preferred words. We naturally use a small vocabulary—a much smaller set of words than what we can understand. And this is an important fact: we need to be able to understand a larger vocabulary than what we use in our own speech because we need to be able to understand a diverse set of people around us. (This fact becomes important below.)

The tendency to use a large vocabulary comes from our trying to overcome the above tendency (and trying to not sound too dumb). But the thing is, you shouldn’t over-correct. The point is to not use a large vocabulary, per se, but rather to use words that your character would use had he actually been a real person with his own preferred words, and that set should be different from your own—and in fact each character would have its own set of words, just like real people have their own unique vocabulary.

That, I think, is one of the big tricks to writing: to sound like you are someone else—even multiple other people—and to use their vocabulary and their idiosyncrasies in combining words. That is pretty hard to do.

I think it's closely related, or at least analogous, to acting. Most of us have one personality. (Some of us struggle with even having one of those.) But we all can hopefully appreciate and understand each other, with our various and sundry and diverse personalities. In other words, it's easier to comprehend more personalities than we can produce or exhibit. A good actor plays off of this ability that each of us has in appreciating other personalities if he can act like someone else—even multiple someone-elses.

Therefore, I think one possible technique of writing well is to actually pattern each character after some real person (the more diverse, the better), and then try to match their language. Matching a real person will likely make the character’s language natural and understandable, giving a proper diversity to the vocabulary you write.

So, whether I should write more words, or bigger words, or more sophisticated sounding words is not the question. It's, which real person's words should I use?

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